South Korea upbeat to host PyeongChang Winter Olympics

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South Korea upbeat to host PyeongChang Winter Olympics

South Korea is keen that its Northern neighbour shows a bigger heart by keeping away all its nuclear activities and takes part in the Games, says Rajaram Panda

Amid all the tensions stemming from North Korea’s nuclear tests and missile firings at regular intervals in recent months, South Korea is defiant and there seems to be a sense of calm as it prepares to host the 23rd Winter Olympics 2018, a major international multi-sport event in PyeongChang from February 9 to 25. The International Olympic Committee elected the city of PyeongChang on July 6, 2011, after the 123rd IOC Session in Durban. PyeongChang won its bid over other claimants such as Munich, Germany, and Annecy, France. This will be South Korea’s second Olympic Games and first Winter Games. In 1988, Seoul hosted the Summer Games. PyeongChang will be the third Asian city to host the Winter Games; the first two were in Japan, at Sapporo (1972) and Nagano (1998).

Thirty years after the 1998 Seoul Summer Olympics, the Olympic flame once again arrived on the Korean soil, at Incheon airport, to a show of singing, dancing, and speeches. PyeongChang’s vision for the 2018 Games is to offer the Olympic Movement and the world of winter sports new horizons, a legacy of new growth and new potential never seen before. It is going to be the most compact in Olympic history, and with its strategic vision, the Game will be a unique platform for the world’s best athletes to showcase their skills.

The most talked about issue at present in South Korea is if North Korea shall participate in the event. South Korea is keen that its Northern neighbour shows a larger heart by keeping away, at least for some time, all its nuclear and missile activities and takes part in the Games. If the North responds to South Korea’s invitation and takes part, it will send a positive message and would mean a lot for both countries.

Given the tensions and Seoul’s keenness for North’s participation, security would remain a top concern, especially when the event shall happen roughly 80 km away from North Korea. Therefore, concerns of the world on the security issue are legitimate. Given that North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and American President Donald Trump will never stop their tirades against each other, no one can be sure of how Pyongyang would behave until the commencement of the event in February 2018. If any unpleasant happening does take place prior to the event, it could have a significant impact on the success of PyeongChang, though Seoul could boast that it could maintain calm regardless of North Korean threats.

Seoul claims that though athletes of other countries have expressed concerns, no one has said that they are not going to come. South Korea is happy about it. To dissipate concerns wherever they exist, Seoul has argued that tensions between the two Koreas have existed for decades and this did not prevent Seoul from successfully hosting the 1988 Seoul Olympics, the 2002 World Cup, the 2011 World Athletics Championships, three Asian Games, and three Universiades. 

This does not, however, mean that Seoul will take any chance on the security issue and is making all preparations for any eventuality. Security drills are being conducted to tackle unforeseen situations, such as a hostage crisis, bus hijack, nabbing an offender and so on. On the other hand, local restaurant owners have stated printing menus in other languages, such as English, Japanese, and Chinese, as they expect an influx of international tourists. South Korea does not want to allow Pyongyang to steal the thunder from PyeongChang as international prestige is at stake and making the event a success is of utmost priority.

Yet, security concerns remain. Despite South Korea’s reassurance, an unpredictable North Korea is scaring off visitors from the Winter Games. This can be seen from the fact that with less than two months remaining for the Games to commence, the organisers are struggling to draw visitors from home and abroad and have only sold about 30 per cent of the tickets.

Trump and Kim have been exchanging bellicose threats and warned of annihilating the other’s country if they order a first strike, and this scares potential visitors. Moreover, North Korea has a massive military and huge arsenal of conventional weapons aimed at South Korea. If a conflict, howsoever unintended, breaks out of a hostile incident, Seoul could be the first casualty. As many as over 65,000 people shall perish in Seoul alone within 30 minutes of a conflict erupting. The people of South Korea may be immune to such threats, but for a foreign visitor, the scenario could be frightening.

The trend in the decline of tourist traffic started after North Korea started firing missiles. International tourism to South Korea remained sluggish since the beginning of 2017, with arrivals down almost 24 per cent through the January-September period. Tourist traffic from China dropped after the then Government of Park Guen-hye entered into an agreement with the US for the deployment of the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile defence system in May, which angered Beijing. Beijing saw that the powerful radars used with the THAAD could be utilised for spying and therefore retaliated by banning Chinese tour groups to South Korea. Though South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit meeting in Da Nang, Vietnam, to work for normalising relations, that is unlikely anytime soon in view of China’s relationship with North Korea.

So, for now, PyeongChang is ready to welcome the world, and the world must join to rejoice this historic moment. South Korea is keen to welcome North Korea’s participation, though the latter is yet to officially announce its participation in the Games. South Korea wants its athletes to march together with those of North Korea, if it sends its team to PyeongChang. If that happens, it would be a historic moment, sending a message of reconciliation.

During the opening ceremony of the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, the athletes of South and North entered the stadium together behind the Korean Unification Flag. This was a big thing since the Peninsula remains divided into South and North, and both remain technically at war as the 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty.

A record high number of 92 countries and territories have confirmed participation and South Korea wants just sports, not politics. For South Korea, the right to participate is granted to any athlete from any country and North Korea is no exception. That is the South Korea’s larger appreciable mandate.

In September 2017, President Moon was in New York as the honorary ambassador of the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics and called for North Korea’s participation, saying it will highlight the possibility of peace and reconciliation on the Korean Peninsula and send a message of peace to the world. Moon feels that bringing North Korea to this international sport event could serve as the start of a change in the way the reclusive regime behaves. Moon’s keenness to have North Korea’s participation despite Trump listing it as a state sponsor of terrorism is crucial. 

If North Korea responds and participates, the communist state is likely to refrain from any provocations during the event. In any case, South Korea does not face any threat from terrorism and no international terrorist incident has taken place so far for racial or religious issues. So, participating countries need not worry on the security issue.

The second big news related with the PyeongChang Olympics is the banning of Russia by the International Olympics Committee over its state-orchestrated doping programme, though clean Russian athletes will be allowed to compete under an Olympic flag. The sanction is the toughest ever levelled by the IOC for drug cheating on a country. IOC President Thomas Bach accused Russia of “perpetrating an unprecedented attack on the integrity of the Olympic Games and sport”.

That has fuelled the speculation that Moscow might instruct its athletes to boycott the compromise solution decided by the IOC. The IOC expulsion has already sparked an outrage in Russia. In the absence of a Russian flag and anthem for its athletes cleared and participating, it is seen as a national humiliation.

This is Russia’s greatest sports crisis since the Soviet era, and it is expected to appeal. Irrespective of what would ultimately transpire, Russia’s reputation as a sporting nation has been severely dented. But one thing is for sure: The PyeongChang will lose its lustre without Russian participation. But whether the Russian example shall be a precedent that shall deter any such future occurrences remains to be seen. For now, South Korea is upbeat to host the event and needs all support to make it successful.

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